Store All Your Data in Your Pocket – Forever

Genealogists are obsessed with the longevity of stored data – and for good reasons. We depend upon old records, and most of us wish to save today’s records for several more centuries. That includes the genealogy records we store in our computers. Floppy disks don’t last all that long, CD-ROM disks only last a little bit longer, and even paper produced today will be unreadable within 50 to 100 years. Then there is the problem of “disappearing” ink used in today’s inkjet printers and the toner used in laser printers that starts to fade within a very few years.

Several solutions have been created but have gained little acceptance amongst genealogists. M-Disks should last for 1,000 years (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M-DISC for details) while sapphire disks should be able to store terabytes of information for several million years. (See my earlier article at http://goo.gl/ZAA0BD for information about sapphire disks.) The problem is that the technology is great, but few people have ever purchased these devices.

Now researchers have found a way to store the entirety of the world’s history on tiny slivers of quartz, not much larger than a quarter. Forever. Yes, forever. Well, at least for 14 billion years, and that is close enough to forever to meet my needs. The technology to do this is available here and now. The question is: “Will anyone buy it?”

5D data storageResearchers at the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) of Southampton University in the UK have improved upon a process first announced four years ago, whereby femtosecond laser pulses are used to inscribe binary data on nano-structured quartz crystals. Back in early 2012, the slivers were capable of storing 40 MB per square inch – about the same as a CD – for a period of 300 million years. Today’s breakthrough ups those numbers to 360 terabytes (360,000,000 megabytes) of data for 14 billion years.

The disks are waterproof, can withstand heat up to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit or the cold of interstellar space, and have a “virtually unlimited lifetime at room temperature (13.8 billion years at 19°C)”. Details are available at http://www.southampton.ac.uk/news/2016/02/5d-data-storage-update.page.

The technology could be highly useful for organizations with big archives, such as national archives, museums and libraries, to preserve their information and records. Obviously, individuals also could use long-term storage capabilities even if they cannot fill the disk with information.

The tiny discs, which are smaller than a half dollar, are only a few millimeters thick and presumably quite cheap. After all, they are simply quartz discs, and quartz can be rather cheap. Data is written on the disks by a laser, which isn’t so cheap but isn’t much different from lasers in CD-ROM, DVD, and Blu-Ray disk drives that are selling today for less than $100. The first few devices to record 360 terabytes on a quartz disk will probably be expensive, but that price should drop dramatically if these things become popular.

Professor Peter Kazansky from the ORC says: “It is thrilling to think that we have created the technology to preserve documents and information and store it in space for future generations. This technology can secure the last evidence of our civilization: all we’ve learnt will not be forgotten.”

Actually, an expected lifespan of 14 billion years might mean we have to find a new home for this data before “the end of time.” After all, the sun is expected to die roughly five billion years from now. What will we do then?

18 Comments

A brilliant invention for preserving important data. I agree with you Dick about today’s inks and paper…you only have to look at receipts to know they quickly fade.

Like

You don’t mention how these discs can be read, presumably by the same device that writes to them. Will they last 5 billion years

Liked by 1 person

“The tiny discs, which are smaller than a half dollar,”
Dick, for those of us not in the USA, what is the diameter of a half dollar? Thanks.

Like

The medium may be durable, but what of the software/hardware needed to read the data? Quantum leaps are continually being made in that area also. I recently came across some zip disks in my office. I have no way to read them. It wouldn’t matter if they were made of quartz or peanut butter. They are useless.

Like

    Zip disk drives are still available on Amazon.

    Like

    I cannot imagine that any “computer” (or whatever they will call those things a few million years from now) will still be reading any data directly from storage media of the 21st century. The question of whether or not people in the future will be able to read floppy disks/CD disks/quartz media/magnetic tape/flashdrives or any of today’s other storage media strikes me as a non-issue.

    Storage costs continue to drop like a rock. Within a very few years, all written human knowledge in all languages can be and probably will be stored in databanks that will easily be accessible to everyone. Those databanks will be copied (replicated) to other databanks around the world. The failure of any one databank will be a minor problem as any new databank can be filled with data from the others.

    We only have to worry about saving data for a number of years until such databanks become available. After that, everything worth saving will be saved and available, all without the use of temporary storage media.

    Like

I continue to see reports of short usable lifespans for home burned CD’s, yet a check of my collection show no problems reading properly burned CD-R’s from the year 2001.

Like

    I’ve had CDs become partially unreadable (some bad sections) after 10 years, but the failure rate is about 1 CD in 100, and even the bad ones were mostly (60% to 80%) readable.

    Like

“are only a few millimeters thick”
I’m guessing they will expect some of them to physically break then unless they are handled carefully. It’s not something you’d want to carry around with you in your pocket with keys and change like a thumb drive for instance. Even if it didn’t break it would get scratched up, which is not a good thing for an object that needs to be read optically. Presumably there would need to be a container built for them to protect them.

Like

    Also, “heat up to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit” suggests that they might not survive a building fire, the cause of many lost document repositories in the 20th century.

    Like

How much does it cost or may cost?

Like

    —> How much does it cost or may cost?

    No prices have been announced yet. It is still a prototype. As I wrote in the above article, “The first few devices to record 360 terabytes on a quartz disk will probably be expensive, but that price should drop dramatically if these things become popular.”

    Like

The only problem that I see is that these are “write once” devices. That’s a lot of storage for information that hopefully isn’t static since we keep finding more ancestors.

Like

I don’t think I want to “store all my data in my pocket” – things in my pocket get sat on and broken or put through the laundry!

There seem (at least to me) to be two tiers of data storage:
– Immediate: keeping the data available for yourself and your immediate successor
– Archaeological: storing data so that it can be found and read in hundreds or thousands of years.
Each tier needs a different approach.

For immediate storage long term durability is not a major concern but accessibility is. For archaeological the priorities are probably reversed.

For immediate storage keeping it as electronic files on some form of mass storage is probably best. The issues are:
– continuing hardware accessibility of the data: Who can read 5¼” disks? (I have an old computer with a 5¼” drive – which I think will still boot and laplink to get the data via an RS232 port to a newer machine which has a CD writer (and an RS232 port!). Far easier to take your data onto the current technology whenever you upgrade your system.
– continued commercial and political accessibility of the data: If using cloud backup can you distribute it across sufficient companies and jurisdictions to be confident of always being able to access it (assuming some politician does not take charge and close down the internet)? Don’t rely purely on cloud!?
– continued software accessibility of the data: I have software that will read my 123 files but I am not so sure about old Freelance files. So again, when upgrading your hardware and taking data with you consider whether current software can adequately read and re-save your data.
– physical security of the data: Is it immune to fire flood and theft? Putting your data on multiple (encrypted) hard drives in multiple locations in fire and flood proof safes is probably better than etching it on slivers of quartz.

For archaeological storage the actual media has to be super-durable and contain some form of clues as to how future generations can design a means of reading the information within the data. The advantage here of print-outs is that you don’t have to decode the information from a series of 0’s and 1’s and it is obvious what it is. Would humans in say three thousand years time realise that a laser disk contained data and was not just a fancy mirror?

Do I need to worry about archaeological storage? For my working files, I think it is debatable. For research output there might be someone intrigued by a bit of family history written a couple of millennia previously. But it is probably easier to lodge a copy in my local archives – on the basis that they will probably make a better job of very long term storage than me.

I am not sure that I need quartz disks. External hard drives (suitably rotated and stored) are probably perfectly adequate for my needs – as long as I transfer the data onto modern equivalents before the USB system is redundant and keep it in reasonably modern software formats!

Now do I really need those freelance files from the 1980s?

Like

Leave a Reply

Name and email address are required. Your email address will not be published.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title="" rel=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <pre> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong> 

%d bloggers like this: